TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 16 February 1818; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18180216-TC-RM-01; CL 1:118-122.
TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL
Kirkcaldy16th Feby 1818.
After an arduous str[uggle] with sundry historians of grea[t and] small renown I sit down to answer the much-valued epistle of my friend. Doubtless you are disposed to grumble that I have been so long in doing so; but I have an argument in store for you. To state the proposition logically—this letter, I conceive, must either amuse you or not. If it amuse you—then certainly you cannot be so unreasonable as to cavil at a little harmless delay: and if it do not—you will rather rejoice that your punishmen[t] has not been sooner inflicted. Having thus briefly fixed you between the horns of my dilemma—from which, I flatter myself, no skill will suffice to extricate you—I proceed with a peaceful and fearless [mi]nd.
My way of life is still after the former fashion. I continue [to teach] (that I may subsist thereby), with about as much satisfaction as I should beat hemp, if such were my vocation. Excepting one or two individuals, I have little society that I value very highly, but books are a ready and effectual resource. May blessings be upon the head of Cadmus or the Phoenicians or whoever it was that invented books! I may not detain you with the praises of an art that carries the voice of man to the extremities of the earth, and to the latest generation, but it is lawful for the solitary wight to express the love he feels for those companions so stedfast and unpresuming—that go or come without reluctance, and that when his fellow animals are proud or stupid or peevish, are ever ready to cheer the languor of his soul, and gild the barrenness of life with the treasures of byegone times. Now and then I cross the Frith: but these expeditions are not attended with much enjoyment. The time has been when I would have stood a-tiptoe at the name of Edinr1—but all that is altered now. The men with whom I meet are mostly preachers and students in divinity. These persons desire, not to understand Newton's philosophy but to obtain a well 'plenished manse. Their ideas, which are uttered with much vain jangling and generally couched in a recurring series of quips and most slender puns, are nearly confined to the church- or rather kirk-session politics of the place, the secret habits, freaks and adventures of the clergy or professors, the vacant parishes and their presentees, with patrons, tutors and all other appurtenances of the tythe-pig-tail.2 Such talk is very edifying certainly: but I take little delight in it. My Theological propensities may be included within small compass—and with regard to witlings, jibers or such small gear—the less one knows of them, it is not the worse. Yet there are some honest persons with whom I sometimes spend an afternoon comfortably enough.— Before leaving this subject I wish to ask how your theological studies are advancing—and chiefly when you are to be at Kirkcaldy? I doubt my career ‘in the above line’ has come to a close. Perhaps I have already told you that there are a thousand preachers on the field at present. Now from calculation founded on data furnished me by persons well versed in these matters—and managed by the rules laid down in Dilworth3—I find that the last draught of these expectants, supposing no new ones to appear in the interim, will at their settlement be upon the verge of their grand climacteric. After which, the[ir] ‘prospects of being useful’ cannot, one would think, be very bright.
I am sorry that Mathematics cause hepatitis in you. The pursuit of truth is certainly the most pleasing and harmless object, that can engage the mind of man in this troublous world: and where shall we find her in her native purity, if not in the science of quantity and number? I counsel you to resume your operations as soon as your cranium will permit—which I trust will happen without loss of time. You will thank me no doubt for this sage advice; but if you knew the need I have of it myself, you would be the more disposed to admire my generosity. It is long since I told you that I had begun Wallace,4 and that foreign studies had cast him into the shade. The same causes still obstruct my progress. You will perhaps be surprised that I am even now no farther advanced than the ‘circle of curvature.’ I have found his demonstrations circuitous but generally rigourous. Yet I must except the proof of Maclaurin's5 theorem in pag[e] 4[14?]—which, if I were not a little man & Wallace a great, I should have small hesitation to pronounce unsatisfactory not to say absurd. I suppose I had read Hume's England when I wrote last; and I need not repeat my opinion of it. My perusal of the continuation—eight volumes, of history as it is called, by Tobias Smollett M.D. and others was a much harder and more unprofitable task. Next I read Gibbon's decline and fall of the Roman empire—a work of immense research and splendid execution. Embracing almost all the civilised world, and extending from the time of Trajan to the the [sic] taking of Constantinople by Mahomet II in 1453, it connects the events of ancient with those of modern history. Alternately delighted and offended by the gorgeous coulouring with which his fancy invests the rude and scanty materials of his narrative; sometimes fatigued by the learning of his notes, occassionally amused by their liveliness frequently disgusted with their obscenity, and admiring or deploring the bitterness of his skilful irony—I toiled through his massy tomes with exemplary patience. His style is exuberant, sonorous and epigrammatic to a degree that is often displeasing. He yields to Hume in elegance and distinctness—to Robertson6 in talents for general disquisition—but he excels them both in a species of brief & shrewd remark for which he seems to have taken Tacitus as a model, more than any other that I know of. The whole historical triumvirate are abundantly destitute of virtuous feeling—or indeed of any feeling at all. I wonder what benefit is derived from reading all this stuff. What business of mine is it tho' Timur Beg erected a pyramid of eighty thousand human sculls in the valley of Bagdad, & made an iron cage for Bajazet? or what have I to do with the cold-blooded savage policy of Charles, and the desolating progress either of Zinghis [Genghis] or Napoleon? It is in vain to tell us that our knowledge of human nature is encreased by the operation. Useful knowledge of that sort is acquired not by reading but experience. And with regard to political advantages—the less one knows of them, the greater will be his delight in the principles of my Lords Castlereagh & Sidmouth,7 with their circulars, suspensions, holy leagues and salvation of Europe. Yet if not profit there is some pleasure in history at all events. I believe we must not apply the cui bono too rigourously. It may be enough to sanction any pursuit that it gratifies an innocent & still more an honourable propensity of the human mind.— When I look back upon this paragraph, I cannot but admit, that reviewing is a very beneficial art. If a dull man take it into his head to write either for the press or the post office, without materials—at a dead lift, it never fails to extricate him. But too much of one thing—as it is in the adage. Therefore I reserve the account of Hume's essays8 till another opportunity. At any rate the Second volume is not finished yet—and I do not like what I have read of any thing so well as I did the first. Neither would it be profitable to tell you the faults of Goodwin's powerful but unnatural and bo[m]bastic novel9 [or] to sing the praises of Rob Roy10 which you have no doubt read and admired sufficient[ly al]ready. Nor will I say one word about the swarms of magazines, pamphlets and observa[tions,] which like the snow that falls in the river, are one moment white, then lost forever.11 Here ends my chapter of reviewing.
Tho' possessing a sufficient confidence in the efficacy of my dilemma, I dare hardly venture to demand a speedy answer to this letter. But I do entreat you to overcome the vis inertiae which adheres to minds as well as matter—and send me some account of yourself with all the velocity imaginable. You will be through Russell12 before now. I long to have your estimate of his merits before I try him. I am thankful for your remarks upon Hunt and Hazlitt.13 Except thro' the medium of newspapers and reviews, I have no acquaintance with them. Hazlitt is somewhat celebrated for his essay on ‘fine arts’ in the supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica; and for his critique on ‘Standard Novels’ in the Edinr review.14 I know not whether you have heard anything of Playfair's15 new demonstration (for such he insists it is) of the composition of forces—I have no room for it now. But if you like you shall have it next time—together with the wonderful slide upon mount Pilatus in the canton of Lucerne for conveying timber to the lake—which he examined whilst travelling in foreign parts—and described when I was in his class, with great complacency—— Do you ever see that sluggish person Johnston of Hitchill? I protest—but there is not space for protesting. Tell him simply to write instanter if he wish his head to continue above his hass [neck]-bone. I remain, My Dear Mitchell, (Send a letter quickly, an' thou love me) Yours faithfully,